This summer, the Norway 75 team embarked on a historic 2000-mile journey through Norway to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the infamous Telemark raids – the successful Allied operation that halted Nazi Germany's program to create a nuclear weapon and help raise awareness for the Royal Marines Charity and its efforts to support good mental health.
By Ric Moat
A History Lesson…
In 1943, the whole of Norway finds itself under the occupation of Nazi Germany. The entire Norwegian coast has been rapidly fortified with gun batteries and troops in order to protect infrastructure and access to raw materials fueling the Nazi war machine as well as guarding the Kriegsmarine vessels nestled in deep fjords.
On the dark night of September 11, a French submarine enters Bjærangsfjorden, a heavily protected 10-kilometer-long fjord. Nazi searchlights reflect off the water's calm surface. In the shadows, 12 commandos — a mix of British and Norwegian — emerge from the submarine and paddle the final kilometer to the back of the fjord. Despite the submarine being spotted, the commandos covertly make it ashore. With their small boats hidden, they embark upon a daring mission that takes them over the mountain pass behind the fjord, dropping them directly onto the hydroelectric Glomfjord power plant.
These men successfully destroy the power plant, thus ceasing the production of aluminum that was crucial to the Luftwaffe. Despite all their guile, eight of these men were killed and only four were able to escape back to UK.
It's the middle of June 2018. The waters of Bjærangsfjorden are calm and, just like our predecessors, we are searching for the shadows. However, we are trying to avoid the rarely seen Norwegian sun rather than enemy spot lights as we paddle in three tandem kayaks to the exact landing spot that the commando team used in 1942. We continue on foot, up over the mountain and reach the power plant.
Our team comprises of eight British Royal Marine commandos. Our self-initiated plan is to travel the length of Norway — from north to south — in order to revisit, retell and commemorate the commando raids from WWII. The Glomfjord power plant, or Operation MARTIN, is one of six sites that we will visit. Attempting to better understand the endurance challenges of WWII commando operations, we have decided to cycle between these locations, a total distance of 3500 kilometers. As amphibious specialists, we decided to take kayaks at each raid location and spend a number of days in the boats, paddling the ambitious insertion and escape routes taken by commandos during each operation.
Commando operations were characterized by their small, diverse and self-sufficient teams. Therefore, the eight of us travel by bicycle, taking it in turns to run support from two Land Rovers. Space is a premium so we have chosen Neris tandem folding kayaks. Three boats pack up neatly along with a safety kit in the back of our trailer. Our route starts in the high arctic of northern Norway, where water temperatures are perennially low (typically in the low 40s), so dry suits are squeezed in.
Prior to this challenge, the team completed a week long training period on the Isle of Wight, so despite being relatively inexperienced sea paddlers, we all understood the expectations of paddling in arctic waters. However, when we arrive at Kåfjord, our first put-in, the sun is beating down and any apprehension is quickly taken by the gentle breeze.
Folding or collapsible kayaks have been a preserve of commando operations since WWII. They offer covert infiltration into tight spots, can be operated in silence and easily hidden and re-constructed for a swift getaway. On the sunny beach at Kåfjord, we are all trying to work out the exact meaning of 'swift'. The aluminium kayak frames now appear as rubix cubes and the rubber skins like a prophylactic to the uninitiated. Excitement to get on the water only exacerbates our lack of skill at constructing these boats.
Finally put together, we stow kit in the cavernous bow and stern of the boats in preparation for an overnight wild camp. Ambiguous currents and tides of these demi-sea fjords (the shelter offered by numerous offshore islands and being surrounded by steep mountains makes one forget that you are, technically, in the Norwegian Sea) are negated by calm weather and we paddle at good speed to excellent views.
As we paddle south down Kåfjord, we trace the route of Operation SOURCE, an audacious mission carried out by brave men in mini submarines who were given the task of infiltrating the protected fjord that harbored the Tirpitz, the jewel of the German Navy. Remnants of enemy gun batteries can be seen on headlands as we progress south. As if to underline the foreboding that these men must have felt, the weather starts to grumble with discontent at our presence.
We were all aware of the fickleness of Norwegian weather, but now we were getting a practical demonstration. With the sea state and winds quickly rising, we are glad about the broad build of our kayaks and our training on the Isle of Wight. While desire and burning shoulders push us on, the gray-green water becomes increasingly lively with whitecaps and the strong gusting headwinds makes our progress painfully slow. Coupled with the fact that the next 10-kilometer stretch is accompanied only by sheer granite cliffs plunging deep into the fjord, we make a decision to put ashore now.
Feelings of shame overcome us as each boat negotiates its landing onto a small rocky beach and awaits the support team. Once ashore, wry grins find each other as the characteristic commando trait of cheerfulness in adversity comes through. We are humbled. The conditions changed quickly but we had the luxury of calling a support team, having time to make sensible decisions under no pressure, a luxury not afforded to the commandos 75 years ago.
The subsequent kayak phases go more smoothly despite variable weather conditions keeping us alert. We trace the epic escape route of Norwegian operative, Jan Baalsrud, which weaves through serene and calm waters of the Lyngen Alps.
Our excitement to visit the world famous Lofoten Islands is quickly dampened as we cycle west along the peninsula against 50-kilometer winds. Two things this region's social media coverage often misses are: 1) the persistent low clouds and 2) that Lofoten was the site of an early and aggressive commando raid that destroyed fish and oil reserves used by the Nazis. While paddling amongst the rocky outcrops and iconic red fishing buildings, it is hard to believe that this narrow strip of beautiful coastline could ever be involved in such an event. Mild swells bounce us around in our boats and navigation amongst standing waves, submerged ironwork and rocks becomes a test of teamwork.
By the time we reach the fjords in the south we have caught up with the good weather. Furthermore, we have become quite the professionals at constructing the kayaks, which affords us a little extra time for another coffee (at this point, six weeks of more-or-less nonstop cycling and kayaking, an extra coffee with obligatory Norwegian pastry is the only way any of us can start the day). Paddling around the Vågsøy region, we reap the benefits of our recent paddling experience; the paddle strokes are strong and efficient, our bodies prepared for regimented breaks on the hour, each team member alert to weather systems rolling in, disturbances in the water from wildlife (sea eagles have become too common to care for), we are a slick operation.
Our evolution is rewarded with a spectacular, secluded camping spot on a tiny island. With a small fire cooking our freshly caught haul and guys making small repairs to the boats in preparation for the following day, there is an air of commando operation. We discuss whether, 75 years ago, the commandos possessed the time and security to absorb the magnificence of this amazing landscape as we are doing now. As harsh as it is beautiful, the Norwegian landscape was one of the biggest advantages to commando operations. So long as one understood it, one could hide, escape and invade with ease. Just as it is a playground for adventure sports now, we like to think that those courageous few enjoyed 'playing' their dangerous games here 75 years ago.
One of the aims of this expedition is to raise awareness and funds for The Royal Marines Charity, specifically supporting the development of a mental health unit that will aid the recovery of serving and veteran Royal Marines Commandos.
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